Those to blame for energy crisis must be held to account

Jacques Moolman, president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry would like to add its voice to those calling for an urgent and far-reaching changing of the guard both at Eskom and within the key government departments responsible for our energy sector.

Anybody who still denies we are in the midst of a national emergency is either being paid to do so or living in a parallel universe. And yet we hear the same jumbled explanations and vacuous promises from those entrusted with the public purse. With the economy at tipping point, there is simply no possible justification to protect the jobs of those who so brazenly ignore years of expert advice.

It is now common cause that Eskom has been infiltrated by powerful criminal syndicates; how can we move forward if the criminals are still in place? A starting point for renewal must be for those responsible for this disaster to be held accountable, and for authorities to recover some of the stolen money – which is on a scale equivalent to the Gupta looting.

If our current energy crisis is symptomatic of crony capitalism, then Eskom is State Capture 2.0. Every unnecessary delay in fixing this mess further erodes our fading hope of robust economic growth and a more prosperous society.

We then need to identify, and appoint to key positions, internationally-recognised experts in the field of power generation, transmission and distribution. If we had done this 15 years ago when load shedding first emerged, our grid would not be in its current state and electricity would be much cheaper. Top energy consultant Ted Blom says the current tariff is already way in excess of the current direct cost of on-the-grid power. And yet we are expected to keep paying more.

The country is now stuck in a Catch 22 situation: we are paying so much for electricity because Eskom is technically bankrupt; it is bankrupt because it currently employs over 40 000 people when the labour force should be around 15 000, according to Mr Blom. He estimates two out of three Eskom employees are surplus to the needs of organisation and earn hugely inflated salaries.

Tackling the Eskom behemoth and restoring grid stability would allow our economy to grow and add millions of jobs across the economic landscape. It’s a no-brainer. But it’s not happening because government is not heeding the advice of its own experts. It is protecting Eskom.

Another key obstacle is the massive backlog in investment. Even if we could generate the additional power needed to keep the lights on, we can’t add it to the grid because we don’t have the transmission infrastructure. We literally can’t connect the new power to the grid and move it to where it is needed. This is why experts are calling for Eskom to be unbundled so that the private sector can accelerate the process of putting this infrastructure in place.

To date it seems government’s only game-plan is to hike the price of electricity even further beyond the reach of cash-strapped taxpayers. This is a short-term band aid that fails to address the gaping Eskom wound.

Private sector involvement is now more than a theoretical consideration; for it is now clear – it has been for a long while – that government cannot be entrusted with this function. We have waited for solutions but we only slide further into the dark ages. Businesses are suffering, which means jobs are being lost. Energy instability is the major concern for two thirds of businesses we surveyed last year in a widespread Chamber survey of our business environment.

We have also initiated a public-private engagement involving key Western Cape economic role players. In this way we hope to help shape the change we would like to see.

We now need a similar effort at national level if we are to overcome the current energy crisis.